Opinion

The hidden danger of refusing to take a sick day

Posted by
Sarah Biddlecombe
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The number of sick days taken by UK workers is at an all-time low – but that’s no cause for celebration.

Picture the scene: you wake up in bed, and your alarm seems louder and more irritating than usual. Your head is aching, and when you stand up, you feel dizzy. You take a moment, but the world is still spinning. You’re hot, but you’re cold – and this isn’t a Katy Perry song, which can only mean one thing. You are sick.

But are you going to call in sick to work?

If you’re part of the UK’s stressed out workforce, the answer is probably a big, fat, panicky ‘no’. As a nation, we are taking fewer sick days than ever before, with new figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showing that sick days are at an all-time low. In fact, the number of sick days taken per worker per year has almost halved since 1993; back then the average worker took 7.2 days of sick leave a year, whereas in 2017 that figure had plummeted to 4.1 days.

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While it’s tempting to think these figures are demonstrative of a healthy and happy workforce that simply needs to take fewer illness-related days off work, the underlying issues at hand point to a much larger problem: we’re all too scared to take a sick day. And we need a solution – now.

We’re all too scared to take a sick day from work

Back in May of this year, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) reported that presenteeism – the act of going into work when you’re ill – had more than tripled since 2010. The CIPD survey found that in 2018, an alarming 86% of workers had witnessed presenteeism in their organisation over the past 12 months, compared to just 26% in 2010.

That means that more of us than ever before prefer to head to the office and ‘soldier on’ through whatever bug we’re nursing, in a desperate bid to avoid falling behind – or to impress our bosses with our can-do attitudes. It’s that or, y’know, pull our laptops into our sick bed, to ensure that we can keep working even when we’re sick. Don’t believe me? Well, when was the last time you took a sick day? Did you completely break away from work, or were you constantly on call to your colleagues and your bosses, fielding “urgent” questions sent in panicky whatsapp messages and incessantly refreshing your inbox for fear you might have missed something crucial?

Exactly.

Even when we are physically away from the office it can feel impossible to step back and switch off; there’s an odd mixture of guilt (“I’ve let everyone down”) and paranoia (“I’m going to lose my job if I don’t attend that meeting/conference/critical brainstorm) that, when mixed with a physical illness, can take its toll on even the healthiest of individuals.

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But rather than allowing our bodies and our minds to recover for 24 hours, we’re battling viruses alongside deadlines, and stomach bugs in tandem with workloads. And – surprise! – this is doing far more harm than good.

Presenteeism is linked to an increase in reported mental health conditions, including stress, anxiety and depression, and – ironically – it is these conditions that are among the main causes of long-term sickness absence. The pressure of our modern workforce, mixed with increasingly precarious job stability and stagnant wages, means we are literally working ourselves into the ground. Last year, an alarming study from the NHS found that over five million people in the UK were signed off from work every year, with mental health and behavioural problems cited as the most common reason, making up almost a third (31%) of cases. There was a 14% rise in sick notes relating to anxiety and stress in just 12 months.

Over 5 million people in the UK are signed off from work every year

And that’s before we even consider those who are self-employed, and largely unable to claim back any work missed from taking a sick day. The ONS describes the self-employed workforce as seeing a “rapid growth” in numbers over the last 17 years, with 4.8 million people (over 15% of the UK’s whole workforce) estimated at being self-employed in 2017. Now, in 2018, that number is likely to be even higher.

So what can be done? The most obvious solution lies in changing our working culture, which sees presenteeism, overtime and even just working through our lunch breaks as par for the course. This change can only come from the top down. The CIPD report found that only a quarter of companies had taken any steps to discourage presenteeism, while only 58% of respondents said their organisation was taking any steps to meet the legal requirements for reducing stress at work.

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And earlier this year, mental health charity Mind found that nearly half (48%) of UK workers had struggled with mental health issues such as stress, low mood and anxiety while working at their current job. Only half of these people spoke to their managers about it, which is hardly surprising when you consider that 300,000 people with mental health issues lose their jobs every year. This staggering figure costs the UK economy up to £99billion, proving in cold, hard cash the benefit for employers to start taking the issue of mental health in the workplace seriously. That change can’t come soon enough.

Images: Getty, Unsplash